Yuri Andropov's empty chair has left almost everything on hold for the past two months for the 11 men who run the Soviet Union. ''And the problem for the men of the Politburo,'' says Marshall Goldman, associate director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University, ''is compounded because many major subjects had already been on hold for about four years prior to [Leonid] Brezhnev's death a year ago.''
Many Western Soviet-ologists agree that the elderly collective leadership of the Politburo now faces new difficulties in managing an economy beset by stagnation and a high-stakes foreign policy toward NATO and China.
After a brief period of forward motion earlier this year, the Kremlin leadership has been plunged back into a kind of managerial limbo once more.
A Western writer who has just returned from Moscow reports a pervasive feeling of letdown among ordinary Muscovites. Russians want to know who's in charge, she says. The attitude of Muscovites, she told Professor Goldman and his fellow researchers, is that Mr. Andropov was just starting to get the country moving again, and now that hope has been undermined.
Even Russians who oppose Kremlin policies had begun to feel that at least Soviet citizens were having their sense of purpose restored. Some compared the glimmer of momentum at the start of the Andropov reign with the feeling of purposefulness, even national greatness, that arose once in World War II and again from pride in Sputnik and other space achievements.
During the year since Andropov took control as general secretary of the party , the Soviet economy has improved modestly. Production is up. But much of the gain took place in the early months of 1983. Productivity improved after the new leader offered both carrot and stick to Soviet workers. He demanded more discipline in the workplace, and promised (and produced) more food and consumer products in the stores.
But the economic momentum of last winter faded. New goods brought in from Eastern Europe dwindled.
Andropov followed up his opening demand for factory discipline with a July promise of experimental management reforms in a few industries. This was greeted with skepticism from experts at the time. But many Western economic analysts believed Andropov would gradually take further steps to push economic reform.
There have been no more big moves since July. Instead, Andropov and the Politburo went into a kind of lame-duck period. It was caused, say Western analysts, by uncertainty over his absences. Researchers at Harvard and Columbia have checked the published minutes of Politburo meetings and found no references to Andropov's presence in the ruling body since August. That was the time of his last photographed appearance in public.
Meanwhile, the leadership of the Politburo is having to deal with the other empty places at its meetings. Leonid Brezhnev, party ideologist Mikhail Suslov, and Arvid Pelshe have all died. Only one fresh face has replaced the missing seniors, 52-year-old Mikhail Gor-bachev. Normally age would not be so relevant. But in a group, most of whom are in their 70s (except for Grigory Romanov and Geidar Aliyev, who are in their 60s), the generation gap may be significant. It could mean that if a further succession is called for, another short reign might ensue precisely because the elderly majority is believed to see Mr. Gorbachev as not yet seasoned.
Overall, though, the most significant effect of the empty Andropov chair may lie in a common human trait. As Marshall Goldman puts it: ''Today you have to be very cautious about doing anything in the Soviet government. Cautious about doing anything against Andropov, because he may be back in the chair next week. Cautious about doing anything to further his policies because he may not be back in the chair next week.''